New Delhi, July 26: A panel of medics and lawyers has asked the Centre to initiate urgent screening of high-risk populations vulnerable to hepatitis-C virus infection and help provide patients access to anti-viral drugs that offer the chance of complete cure.
The panel, in a paper released on Monday, has called on the government to launch and sustain nationwide surveillance for the virus that is spread through contaminated needles and blood transfusion and can cause serious liver damage, including cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Sections of health experts have estimated that India has 87 lakh people living with chronic hepatitis-C virus infections. In comparison, India had an estimated 21 lakh people infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in 2015.
Medical studies suggest that of the 87 lakh chronically infected, 17 lakh could develop cirrhosis. Of this, over four lakh patients may develop liver cancer and liver failure.
"It is a tragedy, we have more people living with HCV (hepatitis-C virus) than HIV and there is no control programme (for HCV) even though hepatitis-C can be completely cured through a short course of treatment," Anand Grover, the director of the non-government Lawyers Collective and the paper's co-author, said.
Patients infected with HCV need to take anti-viral drugs called sofosbuvir or daclatasvir which are available in the Indian market. The treatment lasts between 12 and 24 weeks and costs Rs 75,000 to Rs 1.55 lakh, the paper said.
The panel has called for nationwide screening of vulnerable groups such as intravenous drug users, patients with haemophilia and thalassaemia, and those with kidney disorders and on haemodialysis, all of whom are considered at high risk of becoming infected with HCV.
"The government can make a start by screening such vulnerable populations. It would be easy to do this, (anti-viral) treatment is available, and India already has the HIV control architecture, the real issue is, is there political will?" Grover asked.
A senior health official who was not associated with the paper cautioned that health authorities would need to generate data for the government to design well-defined HCV control programmes.
"We're groping in the dark - without data on HCV. We need data to support budget exercises and set the agenda for a response," said Mrinalini Darswal, the project director with the Delhi AIDS Control Society.
The panel has also asked the government to invoke legal mechanisms, including compulsory licensing provisions, in Indian laws to ensure the anti-viral medications can be manufactured by Indian drug companies and made available at relatively lower costs than patented products.